Political Courtship

Candidates to replace state Rep. Ben Cannon woo precinct committee persons, who will pick finalists.

In the past few weeks, Peter Geiger has played host in his backyard to two people who want to win a seat in the Oregon Legislature. He’s shown them his chicken coop, his heritage arugula and his sunflowers, and talked politics on the back deck of his Mount Tabor home. 

He's getting even more invitations from candidates by email and by phone. "I've never been so popular in my whole life," he says.

Geiger is an unusual position of power at the moment. He's a Democratic precinct committee person helping to decide who gets the House seat vacated Sept. 1 by Rep. Ben Cannon (D-Southeast Portland).

That makes Geiger the target of an unseen campaign waged in the past few weeks by candidates trying to win his support. 

Right now, seven people want the seat once held by Cannon, appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber last month to be his top education adviser. The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners by the end of the month will choose Cannon's replacement from a list of three to five finalists.

The precinct committee persons pick the finalists. Candidates have been wooing them at coffee, tours, lunches—more attention than most voters will ever get. Wednesday night, Geiger and 28 other precinct committee persons—known as PCPs—convene at the Hollywood Senior Center to name a list of finalists. 

"You want to talk to the PCPs, get to know their issues, their concerns," says Rob Milesnick, one of the candidates for Cannon's seat. "You want to kind of get some idea of what at least part of your voting population is interested in.” 

Typically, the job of precinct committee person is obscure. They help organize during campaign seasons and get out the vote around Election Day. 

Cannon's House District 46 includes the Laurelhurst, North Tabor, Mount Tabor, South Tabor and Montavilla neighborhoods. The precinct committee persons include an architect, a lobbyist and a former probation officer.

Voters registered with political parties elect the PCPs on the primary ballot. Tracy Nichols, a 51-year-old architect, says he never thought about getting involved in politics until a friend put his name on the ballot last year. 

"I got enough votes," Nichols says, "and let me tell you, it doesn't take too many."

Nichols has been sent résumés by candidates and received calls from two hoping to get together with him.  He’s found all the attention a bit surprising. “I never thought that I’d help to choose a replacement for Ben Cannon,” he says. 

This kind of retail politics has created some unusual match-ups. Milesnick and Mike Delman ran against each other in a six-way primary in 2008 for the county commission seat held by Judy Shiprack. Delman lost to Shiprack in the general election; Milesnick never made it out of the primary.

Milesnick recently came calling on Delman, a PCP. The two talked politics in Laurelhurst Park —Delman walking his border collie, Clinton, and Milesnick pushing his 9-month-old son in a stroller. Delman says they talked about health care, education and whether to build the Columbia River Crossing. "I look at it as being part of my duties," Delman says—noting he'd already made up his mind. "I'm supporting Alissa."

That would be Alissa Keny-Guyer, a project manager at Oregon Solutions, a nonprofit sustainability group, and wife of Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps.

Keny-Guyer recently found herself in back-to-back lunches with PCPs at E.A.T. in Milepost 5 in the Montavilla neighborhood. One talked to her about arts funding, and the other gave her a walking tour and took her to a homeless services center.

"Really sitting down with them and understanding their own experiences is a way to take a nine-month campaign and distill it into one month," she says.

The spotlight for PCPs ends Wednesday, and the prospect leaves some PCPs wishing politicians would pay this kind of attention to voters' needs more often. "Citizens don't get heard much," said Veronica Broeth, a 62-year-old court service processor and former probation officer. "It's neat to establish a relationship with someone in that position. Hopefully, I can give them a call someday and say, remember me? All citizens should have that relationship.”